Tuesday 8 July 2014

025) How Cheap is Your Ticket to Legitimacy?

The Kotzker Rebbe’s teacher, the Yid HaKadosh, was a student of the Chozeh of Lublin. One year, just before Rosh HaShanah, the Yid told the Chozeh that, based on his interpretation of what he had read in a book entitled Raziel HaMalach, he (the Yid) was destined to depart from this world soon after the festival. The Chozeh told him to stay with him, and that he would intervene on his student’s behalf, thus prolonging his life. Surprisingly the Yid declined and left his teacher saying that if he stayed his life would no longer be his own. He would be too beholden to his teacher and didn't want to live a life that wasn't entirely his own.

This was the beginning of the unsurpassed and unprecedented teachings of unrivalled independence that Kotzk became so famous for.

Kotzk was also famous for its opposition to mysticism, something quite unheard of in Chassidic circles.
General Chassidism had perfected the art of taking Kabbalah to the masses. The Kabbalah had become like a science, replete with concepts that could be depicted in diagrammatic representations, very similar to diagrams of modern electric circuitry. One could study how the Divine energy flowed from above to below and how to influence its course.

Kotzk attempted to replace religious and mystical Theology with religious Psychology. When faced with the vicissitudes and challenges of life, the school of Kotzk believed that man would be far better equipped to deal with real situations by facing them head on, than by resorting to mysticism. While vicariously deflecting real problems to an invisible entity may seem appealing to some, in Kotzk it was regarded as a weakness and an excuse for not dealing with problems. Thus mystical Theology was replaced with a type of practical Psychology, which emphasized strength and independence of the individual, and his innate ability to live a real life in a real world.

Key to this psychology was the developing of a healthy and assertive sense self-belief (Emunat Atzmo). Only when I know who I am, can I relate to you in a meaningful way. If my “I” is not healthy or clear, how can it understand “you” -  and, more importantly, how can it understand and relate to G-d? And how can you and G-d in turn relate to me, if my “me” is not clearly defined? 

In the schools of Kabbalah, the term “da'at” (knowledge), is usually explained as meaning ‘connection’. When man ‘connects’ with G-d, he ‘knows’ G-d. In Kotzk, “da’at” instead means ‘self-knowledge’ and ‘groundedness’. The more grounded the person, the more real his encounters with both other men and with G-d.   

The Kotzker Rebbe said that while some other Rebbes were preoccupied with ‘reviving the dead’, he was more concerned with ‘reviving the living’, which was much harder to do.  To teach the living how to be grounded to this real existence instead of trying to fly off to some other existence, is not what people want or expect to hear from a spiritual leader. But this is how, ironically, one becomes a healthy spiritual being. The ostensible spiritual path is, ironically again, often the easier path, and often just a way of opting out. Sometimes it may even be an illusion.

The Kotzker’s other teacher was R Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. He once said that if you are yourself (obviously within the framework of Halacha), and don't try pretend you are someone else who is more holy than you, you can never go to ‘hell’. How can you be punished for being the real person G-d created?

In Kotzk there are two beautiful and novel interpretations of two overused and clichéd religious concepts; ‘Arrogance’ and ‘Truth’:

‘Arrogance’ usually means haughtiness. Religious people are not supposed to be haughty. In Kotzk, however, it means pretending to be someone you are not. It means aiming too high relative to your current level. It means that you are no longer grounded. You can do all the mitzvot in the world but if you still haven't found your way and are merely copying some other prescribed way, you are considered ‘arrogant’.

‘Truth’ usually means not telling a lie. Religious people are not supposed to lie. In Kotzk, however, it means being true to yourself. It means finding a path that is appropriate to you. Not just following the trends of the mainstream.

There is that wonderful interpretation of the Baal Shem Tov on the famous expression: “Bishvili nivra HaOlam” (The world was created for me). The word “Bishvili”, doesn't only mean “for me”, it can also mean “for my pathway”. In other words, there is room in this great universe for me and my unique approach. And I would not be true to myself or to the universe if I didn’t make a concerted effort to discover it and live it.

In Kotzk one’s first allegiance was legitimacy to oneself.
“The issue is not whether one is legitimate in somebody else’s eyes, but whether one has integrity before G-d, and as one can never know that, more importantly, in one’s own eyes.”
(The Quest for Authenticity, by Michael Rosen)

To put it another way; One can never know if one is legitimate before G-d. One can seldom know if one is legitimate in the eyes of another. But one can always know if one is true and legitimate to oneself.

Allow me to share a short personal story with you.
I have to preface it with the following quotation from the Kotzker Rebbe:
“Do not think the Esau was a rough farmer wore checked undergarments, walked about barefoot, and raised pigs? Far from that. The evil Esau grew a full beard and had side locks.  He headed a religious community and used to say over Torah at the Third Meal on Shabbos.”
(Kochav HaShachar p 149, par 1)

I recently officiated at a wedding. One of the guests was an older rabbi whom I hadn't seen for many years. I respectfully went up to him and complimented him on how well he looked. I told him that the years hadn't touched him and that he still looked the same as he always did. He took me aside and suggested that if I wanted to be ‘more legitimate’ and have more of a ‘presence’, I should grow a full beard again. He remembered me having a full beard some twenty odd years ago. I needed, he said, to regain my ‘Tzelem Elokim’ (G-dly image).

I'm embarrassed to say that the Kotzk in me responded that I really didn't want to worship a G-d who could be so easily emulated by default . And I (mischievously) told him that I still had ‘full beard’ and that perhaps the years had affected him after all, because conceivably he couldn't see so clearly anymore. Perhaps he, like so many others, was only looking for the cheap ticket to legitimacy.

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